Chapter 11




I will review the aims of the thesis and then look at what was achieved in the three main areas of research:

1. The historical enquiry into precedents. This was in two parts: First, a general survey of other collective sites of cultural production that I have engaged with in the last twenty years. Second, an essay on with the precedents within the media of film.

2. The theoretical enquiry, which was also in two parts: The first was a detailed discussion of what we can understand by culture. The second part was an exegesis of Habermas' Theory of Communicative Action as it relates to the terms of the thesis. The discussion of TCA was followed by a review and discussion of some of the main contemporary critical objections.

3. The empirical enquiry, the findings of my research into Exploding Cinema, are summarised under the headings of each methodology that was used. Each methodology is considered critically within a reflexive framework.

The aim of the thesis was twofold. The primary aim was to argue for the value of self-organised open access cultural formations using an appropriate critical framework. To underpin this I intended to make the basis of a historical account of one such group, Exploding Cinema, using recognised methodologies that would be critically applied. It was hoped that such a rigorous approach, which takes on board the complexity and multiple viewpoints of such formations, could contribute to future research into similar areas of cultural production.

The Historical enquiry into precedents:

The review of other collectives worked to give a reflexive background to my research position as well as describing collective production that had been directly influential. Mail art had nurtured talented artists like Mark Pawson who was also member of the Exploding Cinema collective. Brixton Artists Collective had been an immediate precedent of the Cooltan site in Brixton that had given rise to the early Exploding. On the other hand the Earthworkshop experiment in Wales and the Self-Build Co-op just related to broad ideas of D.I.Y. in the counter culture.

Others like The Scratch Orchestra or New Dance magazine had been influential collectives within other media and I brought this experience to my interpretation of Exploding Cinema. Bigos, Artists of Polish Origin and Working press were critical collectives that focused on issues of identity which influence my interpretive frame.

Apart from establishing a self-reflexive position for me as researcher this also served to give some idea of the diversity of collective structures and media that had preceded the Nineties in Britain.

The second part of the historical enquiry helped me to draw some parallels between early cinema and Exploding Cinema. These arise from even earlier forms of popular culture like the Musichall, which Exploding Cinema is very similar to in many ways. Exploding Cinema is certainly meant to challenge our easy acceptance of the contemporary cinema experience and a practical referencing of roots is a part of this.

I then looked at the growth of underground cinema in the USA and its influence on the British counter and art cultures. There are direct ideological links between Jonas Mekas' Film Coop and the Exploding with regard to open access and democracy. There are also very clear differences between the two, which are instructive, such as Mekas's ceaseless writing about film, which has hardly any parallel with Exploding Cinema, and the lucrative US college circuit which went a long way to support and disseminate experimental and underground film.

My next argument concerns the similarities between amateur film and Exploding Cinema activity. Exploding Cinema seems to have moved away from the literary much more than the US underground, relating almost exclusively to an oral field of communication. The category 'amateur' allows more sympathy with this, but its use is somewhat paradoxical in as the amateur realm is broadly denigrated. Hopefully this is a productive contradiction.

I then make a short case study of a film group that preceded Exploding and provided a model for many Exploding Cinema practices; David Leister's Kino Club. This had grown out of the comedy renaissance of the late Seventies. This shows how counter cultural groups do not necessarily develop just within the lines of strict media disciplines. Trans-media fertilisation patterns are an important feature of this sort of cultural development.

Theoretical enquiry

I reconceptualise culture as an expression of all human senses rather than a historically formed set of media disciplines. Again this helps us to think about Exploding Cinema in relation to culture rather than just in relation to film history. Democracy is about coming to agreements and this is argued to be the basic mode of cultural formation. These culture processes of coming to agreement are seen as an essential underpinning of any inclusive notion of democracy

This section is also used to think about the distinction between oral and literary cultures and to see Exploding Cinema as framed by orality in spite of its educated personnel. It therefore cannot be fully appreciated from the literary frames of disciplines like film studies.

Habermas's Theory of Communicative Action (TCA) is then examined in relation to Exploding Cinema. This allows us to evaluate Exploding Cinema and other collectives as sites of communicative action. It gives us conceptual frames to evaluate this action in terms of its rationality. This is not Weber's idea of reason as rationalisation, which has become the received meaning, but a more basic idea of reason. Habermas concept of lifeworld and system is useful in positioning the oppositional stance of Exploding Cinema. This is also a validation of Exploding Cinema policies of independence and open access. It can be seen as a forum that could be seen to act outside of, or at least relatively independent of, system interests. In this way it can compensate for the blind spots in systemically framed discourses.

Contemporary critiques of TCA are examined and reduced to two themes. The first is the position of power within rational communication that can be summarised as a Foucaultian position. The second is a post-modernist critique of the place of reflective judgement within rational deliberations. These critiques of TCA are not seen as undermining Habermas' theory but rather to act as warnings on its interpretation.


Practical Researches

An introduction emphasises a reflexive approach to the use of methodologies.[1]

Content Analysis: This measures attendance at meetings as an indicator of who was involved in the collective at any time period. Tables are used to map a complex and dynamic membership. They show how the collective members at the period of study (1997 - 1999) had joined the collective and risen to power.

Intensities of work shown are also studied by this method. This leads to a suggestion that the usual process of canon formation by third party selection could be replaced by a self-selection by quantitative intensities; a method of canon formation that would reflect rather than negate the ethos of Exploding Cinema.

Semiotic Analysis: The images in the programmes were assumed to be a graphic expression of some of the underlying cultural values shared by the collective. These indicate a passion and affinity for the environment and nature, a relation to aspects of popular culture such as circus (that had been indicated by the study of precedents), comics and the horror genre. This can be seen to orientate Exploding Cinema in terms of performance, graphics, texts and film. A question that underlies this section is the extent to which a set of visual statements is capable of being rational communication.

Participant observation: This was based on an analysis of my logbooks. The themes and values with which Exploding Cinema promotes itself are those of open access, independence and democracy. Participant observation allows these themes to be discussed in the context of an ongoing collective practice. This study attempts to distinguish action from myth and rhetoric, and to contribute detail to the historical representation of the collective and its working.

Oral History: An insight into the lives of each member of the collective of this time is gained through forty-minute interviews. The results of this fold back on the previous themes shows these themes to be woven into the life stories of the participants. Examples are Colette's early experience of drive-in movies, Caroline's memories of home movie shows and Duncan's family relation to the musichall star Little Tich. These all have a strong resonance in the current format of Exploding Cinema. The interviews also show the collective as culturally diverse and made up of more first or second-generation immigrants than English natives.

Archival research: The previous methodologies all complement and add to the traditional use of archival records. Here I have built up an account of Exploding Cinema that is partly chronological and partly thematic. We get a sense of the enormous scope of Exploding Cinema activity over the period.[2] Firstly there are the shows: over 80 shows showing c1300 movies by 700 filmmakers in 21 diverse venues. These bare statistics are impressive enough but it is only when we relate the detail and diversity of all the shows that this achievement can be fully understood and evaluated. Then add to this core activity the eight continental visits or tours; the eleven Ritzy shows; the interventions and miscellaneous events; 'Vacuum' the compilation video; the website; and most importantly, the Volcano Festival from 1996 to 1999, which was largely run by Exploding Cinema members.

Here we can also look in detail at the format that has been such a success in keeping this activity financially solvent and so, independent. We can have an insight into some individual events with participant descriptions and minuted feedback. We get some detail and flavour of the counter cultural political positions and style of polemic from the rants published in the programmes. We also see the weaknesses: the paucity of film reviews or archives and the collective crisis that led to the split of 1994/5.

As we have seen, the record of filmmakers, who showed work at Exploding Cinema, could provide data for a 'counter canon'. I have suggested that this might be selected by their energy and commitment to open access showing, rather than simply by qualitative criteria. In this chapter we see that a classification or genre system can be derived from the cryptic descriptors that accompany film titles in the programmes. The image we get from this classification is of the great diversity of types of subject matter that has made its appearance on the Exploding Cinema screen.

The cumulative effect of this research should provide a powerful representation of the vitality of Exploding Cinema in terms that are derived from and sympathetic with the group's ethos. This representation is one that tries to avoid reductive summary and closure. I want to emphasise the complexity and idiosyncratic untidyness of the phenomenon - not provide a neat and easily digestible representation. Readers are intended to form their own impressions rather than being served up with a pre-digested narrative. At the same time my methodologies are intended to be transparent and reflexive and so open to further discursive engagement.

Exploding Cinema's value in providing a forum for a democratic culture is brought into focus with the use of the chosen theoretical framework. This is a more abstract sense of value that I suggest may be equally applicable to other artists' collectives. I am thinking of culture as, webs of significance in which we are all suspended and which we ourselves have spun. And thinking that the most elemental purpose of culture is 'its effort at total qualitative assessment'.[3] Cultural works can have other uses, such as giving sensory delight, but qualitative assessment is at the core of our ability to profoundly understand our situation and adapt to the future successfully.

From this perspective works of art offer assessments which go beyond the scope of verbal or scientific analyses. They attempt to think directly in terms of the sense flux in which they are articulated. Doubts are still expressed occasionally that non-verbal works are capable of articulating rational thought.[4] Within the philosophical tradition, rationality can only be generally described as human thinking unhindered by distortions and confusions. It seems clear that an artist working in any sense media can be thinking rationally, even if the work does not provide the kind of linear 'argument' we are used to with words. The idea that imagistic thought needs words for intellectual coherence may simply be a remnant of a Protestant literary hegemony.

So how do individual works of art and design relate to the big picture of culture that was evoked by Weber and Williams? It seems that with the ritual of the show, artwork is offered for the considerations of a wider public. If numbers of this public are excited by the artist's statement(s) and pick up something from the work, then these new concepts and ideas enter some form of wider circulation. But it is not only the work that has influence. As I have demonstrated the context provided by the Exploding Cinema carries a powerful significance, not least of which is its historical resonance. This is a process that can be mediated by discourse, but isn't necessarily. Such events, and the processes that reach out from them, reverberate through a cultural field leading to new significances, values and concepts. Culture as a whole is made up of a complex patchwork of such agreements, which are ideally, available for re-evaluation at any time. Cultures reach the coherence that brings them into being and then overlap, interpenetrate and clash with cultures around them.

Every element of culture has at some point been the subject of processes of social consideration and agreement. Art and Design of all kinds, both professional and vernacular, can be seen as taking part in a process of coming to agreements about our current conditions, with the aim of reaching the fullest collective understanding of our situation. Words are themselves subject to this considered social emergence and continue only by our agreement to utter them. The culture we actually experience may not feel this dynamic in practice. Re-evaluations can be frustrated and hindered by systemic rigidities and hegemonic structures. However, if we are to make decisions about futures based on the fullest understanding of our present, we need to reach for the most flexible and open culture we can.

Democracy is also elementally about coming to agreements. Even if these are about how to negotiate differences without destructive conflict. As Jurgen Habermas has pointed out in his recent Between Facts and Norms democracy needs to be rooted in a common ground established by cultural process. Without such a common 'political culture', which can accommodate ethnic and other forms of cultural difference without repression, a contemporary democracy can only exist on the most banal level. So it seems that culture and democracy may usefully be seen as a continuum of the processes by which humans reach agreements. A continuum, therefore, of our most basic processes of play and communication.

As Habermas has pointed out, Europe has established a political centralism with no attempt to resource a trans-European cultural ground for a broad grounding of the political process.[5] Of course, coming to agreements across a continent through local cultural diversities is a challenge. But there seems to be no limits to the scale on which humans can reach cultural agreements - given sufficiently open networks of cultural dispersion.

Cultural agencies and institutions that are permeable and open themselves are more likely to be able to nurture the swarming of common cultural values needed to underpin consensii on a continental or global scale. 

The real history of cinema is invisible history. History of friends getting together, doing the thing they love. For us, the cinema is beginning with every new buzz of the projector, every new buzz of our camera. With every new buzz of our cameras, our hearts jump forward my friends. Jonas Mekas (February 11 1996 American Center Paris)[6]



Stefan Szczelkun, June 2002,

Doctoral research, School of Communications, Royal College of Art.

Converted to website with minor modifications July 2003


[1] Methodological reflexivity: Before the reports on each area of practical research there was a consideration of the pros and cons of the methodologies that were chosen to study my subject area. In this way the integrity of the information accrued by each method could be assessed prior to, during and after research. It also allows future research into similar areas to have the benefit of this experience.

This is one aspect of the reflexivity I wished to bring to the research and so to the representation achieved. Any social research is also subjectively motivated and I determined at the start that this should be made transparent. This becomes part of the participant observation methodology but it is also part of other collective sites of cultural production in the last thirty years.


[2] Although my research covers the period 1991 - 1999, various aspects of the study are of more limited time frames. E.g. the participant observation period was 1998 - 1999; the study of programmes was from mid 1992 to mid 1998; the oral history is a slice made of the core collective as it existed after I joined the collective in 1997.


[3]  After Max Weber and Raymond Williams as discussed in Chapters 3 & 4.


[4] See Diskurs journal (7/11/99 pp5 & 45)


[5]  See Jurgen Habermas' Between Facts and Norms: contributions to a discourse theory of law and democracy (Polity 1996 pp491 - 515)


[6]  This is the last paragraph of Mekas's 'Anti-100 years of cinema manifesto' first printed in a large format 8 page artist's magazine published by Agnes B. in 1996. Available from: